The best fantasy novels with complex female leads

Why am I passionate about this?

My passion for female-led fantasy began from the time I was a young girl and spans across a lifetime of reading the genre—but not necessarily always seeing my own heart reflected in the tough-as-nails, devil-may-care girls and women who began to dominate the fantasy landscape once I hit my teens. By sharing about an array of fantasy female leads who range across a wide spectrum of origins, personalities, and perspectives, I hope to help other readers just like me find characters they resonate with and stories that stick with them for a lifetime—just like these ones have for me.


I wrote...

Darkwind

By Renee Dugan,

Book cover of Darkwind

What is my book about?

Darkwind kicks off the epic high-fantasy journey of Princess Cistine, the noble but naïve heir to a kingdom under a threat of war. To save her home, she embarks on a reckless journey to entreat their former enemies for an alliance against this new and ever-growing danger.

But foreign lands hold as much peril as promise, a lesson Cistine quickly learns when she falls in with a wild band of outlaws. For a price, they agree to train her to fight for herself and her people, to strike the treaties that can save them all, and to become what her endangered kingdom needs: a warrior queen.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Saltwater Heir

Renee Dugan Why did I love this book?

Finding The Saltwater Heir and falling in love with its female lead, Princess Soren—who balances softness and strength in equal measure—was something that got me out of a reading slump of many years and changed the way I view female-led fantasy as a whole. Soren is steel and roses; she is a fun-loving, fierce gremlin of a girl who spoke to the wildness that lives in my heart. Her sass and wit were only outmatched by her willingness to lay down her life for those she loved most. That fierce attachment to her family and friends was something I had been missing in a lot of recent fantasy reads, and it endeared me to her from the moment I began reading! I also adored how she played off of the rest of the cast, particularly her siblings and best friend. Her complexity made the whole book absolutely un-put-down-able! 

By Cassidy Clarke,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Saltwater Heir as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Princess Soren of Nyx is no stranger to loss after a decade-long war with the neighboring kingdom of Atlas. But with her best friend slowly succumbing to a cruel Atlas poison, she hatches a reckless plan: kidnap the enemy prince from the battlefield and use his life to barter for the antidote.


But when that prince calls her by a different name...the name of his sister, whose death began the war ten years ago...everything changes.


Stolen away to Atlas, trapped behind enemy lines, Soren must navigate a kingdom she knows nothing about, surrounded by a family she doesn't remember, and…


Book cover of Graceling

Renee Dugan Why did I love this book?

Though lead character Katsa might be considered a more conventional tough female character, her story was one that gripped me as a young teenager and has stuck with me for all the years since. Katsa is a woman of great wiles stuck in an impossible place, striving for what often seems like an impossible goal; and the way she fiercely protects and loves what is hers to defend has made her one of the most memorable female fantasy heroines I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about!

By Kristin Cashore,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Graceling as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 13, 14, 15, and 16.

What is this book about?

Discover the Graceling Realm in this unforgettable, award-winning novel from bestselling author Kristin Cashore.

A New York Times bestseller
ALA Best Book for Young Adults
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children's Literature Winner
Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal,Booklist, and BCCB Best Book of the Year

"Rageful, exhilarating, wistful in turns" (The New York Times Book Review) with "a knee weakening romance" (LA Times). Graceling is a thrilling, action-packed fantasy adventure that will resonate deeply with anyone trying to find their way in the world.

Graceling tells the story of the vulnerable-yet-strong Katsa, who is smart and beautiful and lives in the…


Book cover of Daughter of the Deep

Renee Dugan Why did I love this book?

Female lead Keira Branwen is one of the most beautifully flawed female fantasy leads I’ve ever read! I was hooked right from the start by the fact that a great deal of the plot is precipitated by Keira’s understanding of certain events…an understanding that may not even be true. Her struggle to come to grips with the fact that she’s lived a lie for so many years, and how she deals with the fallout of numerous shifts in her perception of the world, was encouraging, inspiring, and riveting. This book made me appreciate the feminine spirit and the small victories that make up who we are.

By Lina C. Amarego,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Daughter of the Deep as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A wedding to end a war. It’s been four years since the blood feud between the Branwens and Mathonwys started. Four years of sunken ships and loved ones lost, four years of wounds both seen and unseen. Keira Branwen is no stranger to duty. As the first mate of a legendary pirate ship, blessed by the sea-god Lyr, and heir apparent to her clan, she would sail to the Otherworld and back to keep her family safe. But when the Council threatens banishment for her people, Keira is faced with a choice; she must either marry her father’s alleged killer,…


Book cover of Gilded

Renee Dugan Why did I love this book?

Serilda was such a breath of fresh air in the fantasy genre landscape! I can’t think of a single female lead who quite feels like her. From the rich lore that surrounds her origins, to her vivid imagination, storytelling prowess, and the way she sees the world, Serilda became an instant favorite for me. Her nurturing love of the children in her care and her father are so perfectly at odds with the call to intrigue and adventure that makes up the other, more mischievous half of who she is. Watching the tug of war between these two halves of Serilda’s heart made this thick book absolutely fly by.

By Marissa Meyer,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Gilded as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

All magic comes at a price, but love was never part of the bargain . . .

The look he was giving her. Serilda had never been looked at like that before . . . The intensity.
The heat. The raw astonishment. He was going to kiss her.

Cursed by the god of lies, a miller's daughter has developed a talent for storytelling - but are all of her tales as false as they appear?

When one of Serilda's stories draws the attention of the devastating Erlking, she finds herself swept away into a world of enchantment, where ghouls prowl…


Book cover of Royal Decoy

Renee Dugan Why did I love this book?

There is actually quite the cast of fantastic female leads in this multi-POV fantasy series! Clare, Serene, and Mia are just a few of the wonderful women who make up this cast. From decoys in training to rebellious princesses to captives with more to them than meets the eye, each female perspective in this book adds a new, profound layer against a backdrop of rich worldbuilding. No two women feel the same, and the insight brought on by each immersed me deeper into an ever-expanding, ever-enriching world. This was an instant favorite of mine from Clare’s very first chapter, and it only gets better with each subsequent one!

By Heather Frost,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Royal Decoy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 13, 14, 15, and 16.

What is this book about?

Clare made a mistake when she saved the princess’s life . . .

In one horrible night, Clare is forced to give up her life as a kitchen maid to become the princess’s decoy. Thrust into a dangerous new world of royals and deadly politics, she must learn how to be the princess’s perfect double to ensure her betrothal to an enemy prince. Desperate to survive, Clare throws herself into self-defense training, taught by her distractingly attractive bodyguard, Bennick. The spark between them is undeniable, though a relationship is forbidden. When a ruthless assassin begins stalking her, it becomes frighteningly…


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I Meant to Tell You

By Fran Hawthorne,

Book cover of I Meant to Tell You

Fran Hawthorne Author Of I Meant to Tell You

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Museum guide Foreign language student Runner Community activist Former health-care journalist

Fran's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

When Miranda’s fiancé, Russ, is being vetted for his dream job in the U.S. attorney’s office, the couple joke that Miranda’s parents’ history as antiwar activists in the Sixties might jeopardize Russ’s security clearance. In fact, the real threat emerges when Russ’s future employer discovers that Miranda was arrested for felony kidnapping seven years earlier—an arrest she’d never bothered to tell Russ about.

Miranda tries to explain that she was only helping her best friend, in the midst of a nasty custody battle, take her daughter to visit her parents in Israel. As Miranda struggles to prove that she’s not a criminal, she stumbles into other secrets that will challenge what she thought she knew about her own family, her friend, Russ—and herself.

I Meant to Tell You

By Fran Hawthorne,

What is this book about?

When Miranda’s fiancé, Russ, is being vetted for his dream job in the U.S. attorney’s office, the couple joke that Miranda’s parents’ history as antiwar activists in the Sixties might jeopardize Russ’s security clearance. In fact, the real threat emerges when Russ’s future employer discovers that Miranda was arrested for felony kidnapping seven years earlier—an arrest she’d never bothered to tell Russ about.

Miranda tries to explain that she was only helping her best friend, in the midst of a nasty custody battle, take her daughter to visit her parents in Israel. As Miranda struggles to prove that she’s not…


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